I’m always interested to try to tease apart and find the meta-debates operating beneath the surface of campaign debates. As I wrote a few years ago in what I called the bitch-slap theory of GOP electoral politics, the whole swift-boat saga was less about the specifics of Kerry’s injuries forty years ago than whether he could defend himself from the charges today. Someone who can’t defend himself is weak; and if a guy can’t defend himself he can’t defend you.
That’s what that whole song-and-dance was about.
So what is this back and forth about Obama and Pakistan about?
What this has boiled down to — and this became even more clear after Tuesday night’s labor-hosted debate, when Biden and Dodd acted as Hillary’s proxies — is Hillary, in league with the party’s foreign policy establishment, trying to make Obama, implicitly or explicitly, concede an error, that he misspoke.
Precisely what he misspoke about is largely beside the point. The key is that they get him to concede that in the complex and serious world of foreign policy big-think, where words have consequences, he made an error. Of course, it’s almost good enough if most observers decide that Obama screwed up. But once he concedes it himself, if he does, he stipulates from now through the end of the Democratic primary campaign that his inexperience in foreign policy is a basic premise of the campaign upon which the battle between him and Hillary will be waged. He can learn, improve, make progress, whatever, but his inexperience compared to Hillary will continue to be the reference point throughout.
But I think he’s done a pretty good job so far refusing to get put in that box. And the truth is that I think Obama’s actual words are so clearly unobjectionable that this is all Kabuki theater of a particularly strained and disingenuous sort. All Obama said was that if we have actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of high-value al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, and Pakistan won’t act, we will act.
Clearly, no Republican can quibble with this. They’re on the record for invading countries because they might become dangers to us at some point in the future. They’re hardly in a position to disagree with Obama if he says we’ll hunt down people who committed mass casualty terror attacks within our borders. And I’m not sure Democrats are in much of a position to do so either.
The unspoken truth here, I suspect, is that Obama has struck on the central folly of our post-9/11 counter-terrorism defense policy — strike hard where they aren’t and go easy where they are. I think everyone can see this. But Obama got there first. So they need to attack him for saying it.